The Spirit in Belgrade by Dr. James B. Wallace

Belgrade from the Sava River, with the steeple of Holy Archangel Michael Cathedral in the background.

Belgrade from the Sava River, with the steeple of Holy Archangel Michael Cathedral in the background.

The Balkans – and Belgrade in particular – have long been a meeting place of East and West. In the long and tragic history of conquest, subjugation, and revolt, this meeting has often been violent. But it has also led to more irenic blends of East and West, most obviously in Eastern Orthodox churches in Belgrade and surrounding areas. Like almost every Orthodox church, the Archangel Michael Cathedral in Belgrade contains an iconostasis (or wall of icons) that separates the people from the altar, where the clergy officiate. The style of the iconography, however, is thoroughly Western. The icons resemble Western paintings in their realism and detail, and are not like the more idealized images of saints typical of Byzantine and Russian iconography. And yet, one need not travel far to find Orthodox churches built in a different style.  The small chapel next to St. Sava’s Church – one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world – displays a return to more traditional forms of iconography.  Every inch of the interior walls, from floor to ceiling, is painted with icons more reminiscent of the Byzantine style.

St. Sava’s Cathedral, Belgrade, one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world.

The author. St. Sava’s Cathedral, Belgrade, one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world.

I was in Belgrade for another meeting of East and West. From August 25-August 31, I attended the Sixth International Symposium of New Testament Scholars. These conferences bring together Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox New Testament scholars to discuss a common theme.  This year’s theme was, “The Holy Spirit and the Church According to the New Testament.” For each session, the organizers paired a paper by an Orthodox scholar with a paper by a Western scholar on the same subject, such as “The Holy Spirit and the Church in the Gospel of John.” Although debates about finer points of interpretation always followed the papers, we often reached agreement in our interpretation of major points. It was said more than once that the “Western” paper was “more Orthodox” than the “Orthodox” paper. We were thus reminded that our constructs of “East” and “West” are often rather artificial.In the afternoons, we held three concurrent seminars. I was one of three co-chairs of the seminar, “The Spirit in Ancient Judaism.” During the Tuesday session, I presented my paper, “Spirit in The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,” which explores a fascinating blend of Old Testament, Persian, and Stoic concepts of “spirit” in a non-canonical, Jewish text.

The Holy Spirit has often been regarded as the most difficult Person of the Trinity to write and speak about, even though, ironically, the Spirit is the Person most intimately linked in the New Testament with the human experience of the divine (especially in Paul’s letters) and the disciples’ ability to understand and interpret Jesus’s ministry (especially in John’s Gospel). Just as the Spirit eludes the grasp of language, the most profound dimensions of the Symposium resist easy formulations. The heart – indeed, the joy – of this conference was the opportunity to connect with colleagues from other parts of the world.

This image comes from the frescos that cover the interior of a small chapel at Kovilj Monastery. The dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit, and the book symbolizes Scripture. This icon was taken as the official symbol for our symposium.

This image comes from the frescos that cover the interior of a small chapel at Kovilj Monastery. The dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit, and the book symbolizes Scripture. This icon served as the official symbol for our symposium.

The hospitality of our Serbian hosts seemed boundless, and the collegial spirit of the Symposium made it one of the richest professional experiences of my life thus far. During the long, multi-course meals, I might find myself with a Belorussian colleague to my left, a Romanian colleague to my right, and a German colleague in front of me. While sitting outdoors at a restaurant in the countryside, surrounded by orchards and enjoying the copious amounts of food we were served, we discussed church life and our intellectual pursuits, as well as the challenges of balancing family life with our careers. We listened to Serbian folk music and enjoyed traditional Serbian food. I conversed with a Serbian bishop committed equally to the spiritual life of the Serbian Orthodox Church and to rigorous engagement with the Western intellectual tradition. These opportunities for learning from one another and exchanging ideas were where I felt the Spirit most fully.